The price of vanity

EVERY time I look into a mirror, there’s always something about how I look that I’d like to change. My chin is too small, my nose is too stubby, my eyelashes are too short, my boobs are non-existent and I’ve lived forever with puffy eye bags. Even when I’ve had enough “beauty” sleep, they are there. But I’m not one to be committed to a beauty regime, so I’ve pretty much given up even before I started any proper treatment.

Eye bags are perhaps, a girl’s worst nightmare, apart from acne breaking out with a vengeance. But who would’ve thought that eye bags would one day become a beauty trend?

Just recently, there was an article on fashion portal, Tongue in Chic, by Grace Wong, on an emerging trend of fake eye bags. Yes, in countries like Korea and Japan, where they are continuously inventing and re-inventing cuteness, eye bags are in as they intensify the eyes, making them appear bigger and “on-the-verge-of-tears”. They use double eyelid fibre tape or contouring make-up technique to create the eye bag look.

Of course, for someone like me who would prefer not having eye-bags, fake or not, I frowned on this piece of new information. But then again, I acknowledge the J- and K-pop phenomena of looking like a child who has just reached puberty.

Ideas of beauty vary from one culture to another and what’s considered beautiful for one is hideous for the other. Take, for example, the ancient Chinese foot binding custom. Foot binding was believed to have originated from the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD). The custom became popular in the late 12th Century when it spread from upper class families to all social classes, and was a status symbol. Foot binding is a painful and gruesome practice; your foot is practically deformed. The process goes like this - first, they clip your toenails and then soak your feet either in hot water or in various herbs, nuts and/or warm animal blood. Next, they break all your toes and fold them under the sole and bind them up nice and tight. The binds are removed every two days for washing and manicuring the toenails. Every time the binds come off, they come on tighter and tighter. Eventually, your arch is also broken. You will then be made to walk long distances so that your weight pushes down onto your feet, further bending them into shape.

While some cultures like things short, others like things long (no pun intended). The Padaung women from the borders of Thailand and Myanmar are famed for their seemingly long necks. They wear brass coils around their necks which push down their collar bones and compress their rib cage. From the deformation of the collar bone, their necks appear to be ‘longer’.

Women from Sarawakian ethnic groups such as the Kayan, Kenyah and Kelabit elongate their earlobes by wearing brass earrings, practically since birth. For the Kayan, elongated ear lobes show nobility. It’s a rare sight these days as the younger generation no longer follow this custom. But I had the pleasure to meet a Kenyah woman who sports dangling ear lobes. I admit, I was a little bit awestruck and felt like touching her ears, but I refrained from such rudeness.

Beauty, or rather, beautification, in some cultures, is intertwined with notions of status, power and wealth or carry significant cultural and mythological meanings. Maori moko carry the genealogy of the wearer, while scarring in southern Ethiopia prepares a woman for marriage.

Even the kawaii (cute) phenomenon of Korea and Japan has some socio-psychological basis to it. Saito Tamaki, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, attributes it to a sort of sexual perversion on the part of the Japanese Otaku culture. Do you also notice that even men are beautiful in Japan and Korea? Unlike say, in Latin America, machismo is not considered attractive in these countries.

Across the world, there is no one idea of beauty. The more generally accepted idea of beauty that we are used to is a Western concoction, propagated by the media. Being beautiful means being tall, fair and skinny. I remember going to a grooming class and was horrified that I was the least pretty girl in the room – most of them had super high heels on, stick thin bodies with no curves whatsoever and Pocahontas-like straight long hair. I was in jeans and T-shirt and was told off for turning up in a three-inch heel rather than a five-inch one. Yes, I have no idea how I ended up there.

But I can tell you, I’ve never felt so uncomfortable. To be “beautiful" is a cruel process – it may not be as painful as binding your feet, but it’s certainly not pleasant.

Fundamentally, what’s considered “beautiful” is very much dictated by what men perceive as beauty. Often, the ancient customs of beautification, like foot-binding, scarring and tattooing, were prerequisites to finding a husband. Times may have changed but the logic remains. When modern-day women make themselves up, it is often to attract the opposite sex. Now, feminists will squeal at this thought, but really, most of us have been guilty of it.

People always say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or beauty is only skin deep. Yet, truthfully, it is very much part of a girl’s life. In extreme cases, girls get depressed or develop eating disorders just because they don’t like how they look. One’s body image is both measured internally and externally as a great deal of our confidence is generated from how others see us. Plus the fact that society can be pretty mean sometimes, and there is the constant bombardment of beautiful people in the media and the beauty consumerism culture to make us feel less than human. I mean, look at all the make-up stuff that’s available. From BB creams to now, CC creams, there’s always something “new” invented to make you look better. There’s even make-up to make you look “natural”; we need make-up to look natural?

It’s great that more women are now able to say no to certain ideas of beauty, especially those which are detrimental to their mental and physical health and can feel good about themselves regardless of what society throws at them. We still need more role models who represent the average woman, not models or actresses who boast about not having to maintain a gruesome regime to keep their bodies in shape.

As for me, I may grumble and moan about how I look, but that’s pretty much all I would do. I can’t afford all the make-up that’s out there and the idea of plastic surgery certainly gives me the shivers. And plus, I wouldn’t trade in my jeans and T-shirt for anything.

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